Are you one of those people who is wary of buying plane tickets online, and would rather call the airline and talk to a “real live person”? Your days may be numbered! It is understandable that the airlines, given their huge financial losses and the ever increasing price of fuel, are encouraging us to book online rather than over the phone, to save them money. It is much less costly for the airlines this way, of course – and the benefits to the consumer can be significant too. Virtually all the major airlines now have a booking fee to book and ticket over the phone; this can be as much as $15 per person. Travel agents also offer a hefty commission for their expertise and services. Booking on-line can be an easy and rewarding experience, if done the right way.
The most prominent and well-known travel websites – Travelocity, Hotwire, Expedia, Orbitz and Priceline – still account for much of the online airfare business. A search for “cheap plane tickets” or similar will also bring up dozens of other less well-known sites. These sites all work much the same way and are relatively straightforward to use – you input your departure and destination city, dates and number of passengers. After a few seconds wait, you have your results on the screen in front of you. Check the results carefully as you may have dozens of different flight options to choose from. The cheapest flight option is usually displayed first at the top of the screen with successive options ranging in price. There may be several different screens or pages of results.
How to Search Effectively for Cheap Airfares
Some of the airline’s websites give you two different ways to search – you can search for flights by schedule or by fare. Of course, if you are looking for the lowest fare, choose the option to search by fare. The results you see will still give you the full schedule as well. Apart from the actual price, you may want to consider other options too when considering the results of your search. The sites mentioned above will tell you which airline, how many connections and even the length of the flight.
And of course, there is the question of the time of day of your flight as well as the dates of travel – all of this can make a massive difference to the airfare. Sometimes it pays to travel at “inconvenient times” such as early morning or overnight – the notorious “red-eye” flight. In many markets, you still need to stay at your destination at least through a Saturday to get cheaper fares, although now they have relaxed this restriction somewhat. When specifying times and dates for your flight, always indicate that your date and time of day is flexible, if you have that option. This option may be worded differently in different sites – it may say “travel dates flexible” or “check fares before and after the dates I gave.” Make sure to check the box before proceeding!
Consider flying into or out of a different airport; sometimes this can make a big difference in airline ticket prices. For example, if you are heading to New York, try typing “NYC” into the destination box, rather than an individual airport name – this way you will get airfares for all the New York airports. Some websites give you the option of checking fares to nearby airports; for example, if you are flying into Los Angeles, you are also given tickets to San Diego, Long Beach, and Ontario if you choose, as well.
Before you buy your ticket, make sure the price includes all applicable taxes and fees, and this rule applies to tickets purchased over the phone as well. The various taxes on a plane ticket can sometimes be over $100, depending on where you are traveling to and if you are given an amount for your ticket online, it should indicate that all these extras are included in that amount.
The Priceline Method
Priceline also offers you ways to search in which you can specify the airline or only non-stop flights, and of course, its feature well known from those TV commercials -“name your price.” With this, you type in the price you are prepared to pay, and Priceline comes back with an itinerary and a price for you. The main disadvantage with this is that you won’t know your airline, flight times or connections until you have completed the transaction and are committed to buying the tickets. Priceline guarantees that the connections will be reasonable, and the flight won’t be an overnight “redeye” flight. I would rather perhaps pay a little bit more and have more control over my flight times. But there is no doubt that Priceline can save you money and millions of people happily use the site.
Traveling at Short Notice
According to a recent survey by the Travel Industry Association, over 60% of leisure travelers planned at least one of their trips with less than two weeks notice. If you regularly have to travel at short notice or to the same place, sign up on different airlines websites for last minute specials or alerts. These announcements of impending lower fares or airfare sales are generally emailed to you or will appear on the home page when you access the airline’s site. Orbitz and Travelocity also offer similar features on their websites, which alert you to airfare deals or specials between your indicated cities. Hotwire also specializes in last minute discounted airfares. Some of the major airlines now have a guaranteed low fare rule posted on their websites, to save you the time and trouble of trying to find a cheaper fare on competitors’ travel websites.
Read the Small Print!
Finally, be sure to check the rules on your ticket carefully, if you book online. Be warned – the fare rules are not always clearly displayed, nor are they still easy to understand, as they often write it in airline jargon. If you book a cheap ticket on some of the major travel websites such as Expedia, Hotmail or Travelocity be especially sure to read the rules – your ticket may allow no changes or refund at all after purchase – the so-called “use it or lose it” rule. Some cheap fares booked online may not allow upgrades, mileage accrual or standby options. None of this may matter to you – but if it does, be sure to read the small print or check with the website, if it isn’t clear. And it may sound obvious but make sure the name on your reservation is the passenger’s name and matches correctly the photo id that you or they will be taking on the trip. If you log in under your name to a particular site, the site may assume it is you that is traveling, and input your name, even if you are booking for someone else.
When you need to talk to a Real Person
Despite the airlines’ efforts to encourage us all to book on their websites, some tickets just cannot be booked online and you will have to call your airline or travel agent. Generally, these include special fares such as senior, military, student and government rates, companion fares (two travel for the price of one) and other promotions or specials. If you have a voucher or previously unused ticket that you are trying to use, you generally have to talk to someone rather than do it online.
If you are traveling at short notice due to a death or an emergency, you may get a lower fare, usually called a bereavement fare. In this case, you need to verify this information, such as the name of the deceased and a telephone number for the hospital or funeral home. Even with the booking fee, these fares are usually a lot lower than the usual fares in a market. If your itinerary is particularly complex with several different destinations or a combination of different airlines, it may be more comfortable – and worth the booking fee – to call and have a person do it.